On a quiet mountainside far away from the noise of any major city, tucked away on four pristine acres of woodland, I should have died. I should have been hacked to bits by an ax wielding madman, his thin white t-shirt sprayed with blood and gruesome chunks of my skin and bone. His teeth should have ripped into the soft of my stomach, emerging with entrails gripped viciously, desperately feeding on my small intestines. Most of my friends would have died too. All but one. And of course no one believes his story. He stumbles from the woods dirty, covered in his comrades blood, confused and dehydrated. His post traumatic stress leaving him mumbling about Randy White and snuffing Andes Mints.
Over the weekend four of my best friends and I rented a cabin in the Catskill Mountains. We were celebrating a recent engagement and using that engagement as an excuse to get together to over drink beer and whiskey, grill meats, and make fun of each other relentlessly. It was really the perfect spot. The cabin faced west and the sunsets were delightful, the afternoons warm, and the beer was plentiful and cold. We even brought our guitars and drums with us, staying up late at night to jam some Neil Young, make up hip hop songs about fire safety, and of course, yell into a microphone about anything and everything. It was amazing, remote, and a much needed break from our regularly hectic and, at the same time, mundane lives.
I arrived first to find the small cabin waiting patiently for me, the deck chairs neatly arranged in a half circle near a small table and the grill. I pulled up and sent a text to my wife that I had made the trip and was still alive. I was referring to traffic and the tough weather I had encountered coming up into the mountains. Had I known more about the next two and half hours ahead of time, and then the next 2 days, I would have asked her to send help.
The cabin owner came out and met me on the deck. At first I thought he was really old but his hand shake was overpowering, he could have easily crushed my dainty hand into dust. I looked him in the eyes and noticed there was a child like blue hue that ran through them, his face much younger than his body. He excused himself for his appearance at first, a thin white t-shirt and stained jeans, and had to sit down on account of his war injury. He was a Vietnam Veteran and quaintly joked about being in the only war that wasn’t really a war. He made the joke again later, much later.
He began showing me around the property. In order to keep the tour short he would just show me around the outside of the cabin and a few things inside. I wanted to crack a beer immediately, after all I was on vacation. But I refrained, thinking it rude to slug away at my turkey leg of Pabst Blue Ribbon while he was trying to leave me the keys to his cabin. I should have anyway.
He began by taking me around the side of the cabin and meticulously discussing the fire pit, the hose area, the back door, the garbage area, the new windows he put it, what the old windows looked like that he removed, how difficult getting the old windows out was,the lattice on the side of the front deck and why there was no lattice on the side of the back deck, the trees in the back, the bird houses, the bird nests, which types of birds can and can’t fit in the bird houses, Bernie Sanders, how the back door sticks a little, how the window on the back door works, the light switch that controls the motion sensor light on the outside of the house near the garbage area because you wouldn’t want a critter getting into the garbage while you were sleeping. And then we went inside the cabin.
An hour had passed. I was glad to have not gotten the full tour. Inside is where it really struck me; that I was with a old man, who has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a terrible battle in a fucked up war. He had settled into a strange little life that he split between the mountains and Washington Heights. He was a lonely man who was very worried that someone may not have a pleasant stay in his cabin, that someone would get hurt, that someone could die up there, maybe on account of his explanations not being thorough enough. I started to feel real bad for him, but I wanted that beer and so I tried to hurry him along through his soliloquy. Meanwhile I was texting my buddies to get there quick, which they did, and I was thankful for it.
Everything is the cabin was dutifully labeled. Every light switch had a note on it, the mirror in the bathroom had a note that explained how to stagger your showers to maintain hot water. The note also suggested multiple person showers. The kitchen had many notes in it, describing where to use certain cleaning agents, some of the bottles themselves had notes taped to them. The spiral staircase was well cared for with rubber bumpers on each of the sharp corners, and orange flags to mark the spots where past residents may have bonked their heads. He had thought of everything and I was starting to admire this about him actually when I realized yet another hour had passed. I wanted to fire up a cigar and listen to the familiar sound of a tab piercing the seal on a cold can of beer.
My friends showed up. We passed him back and forth for another half an hour to tire him out, then gently explained to him that we had enough information, that we were grateful for his lengthy explanations and for his service. He did his best to leave, which is a struggle for him, not only to leave the company of others, but just to walk. He was a nice enough old man, who finally eased himself into an old Ford four door with no plates or registration. He started the vehicle and slowly put it in drive. We all watched as it trickled down the gravel driveway and finally out of sight.
The party had started. Beers were opened and dumped down necks, whiskey was drunk heartily while chunks of animal were thrown on the grill, cigars glowed, guitars twinkled, and before we knew it the stars were out, the camp fire lighting our grinning faces with reds, oranges, and yellows. We were happy, together, laughing, and well as ever.
The next day in between bouts of nausea we joked about the cabin owner. We joked about his notes, his loquaciousness, his overall goofiness. We made up stories about other cabin renters, the issues they must have had to have a note posted, the complaints collecting in dusty piles in the cabin owner’s brain until he made another note, another sign, all for our amusement. We certainly had our fun.
That next night we were at it again. Beer and whiskey were abundant as was the smoke from the grill. We started in about the quirky cabin owner again. I offered up the fact that the sign on the mirror suggested that people shower together and that maybe the place was bugged with cameras and microphones and that maybe he’s heard us the whole weekend poke fun at his notes and signs. We started coming up with scenarios about how the lights would flicker and the ice cubes would sink into the bottom of your cup, how the water would stop working and the air would suddenly become real cold. We joked about how you would hear the snapping and crackling of small branches deep in the woods, getting louder as the foot steps got closer. Just then the fire would suddenly go out along with the power. We would be left in total darkness on top of a mountain we were unfamiliar with with a crazed killer on the loose. That’s when the real horror starts.
Suddenly glimpses of a shiny ax would appear, first under the light of the moon in the distance, next swinging by your shoulder. Screams of your friends being tortured to death in the distance would haunt your brain as you tried to run through the thick brush and trees. You would run until your lungs burned and your legs ached emerging into a clearing only to realize you ran in a circle and came back out at the cabin. The incredulous look on your face interrupted by the lights coming back on in the cabin. You run inside to get your cell phone, to call for help. Inside there is carnage, you realize you are the only friend remaining, all have perished. Their limp and lifeless bodies carelessly thrown into Gorey piles around the cabin. And there is the killer, between you and the only door. He is brandishing an ax covered in your closest friends blood, a muddled bloody hand print on his chest, his teeth coated in entrails. You narrowly escape, getting back to town at day break to explain what happened. But you can’t make sense of it and the locals just think you did it, your own shirt covered in blood.
We joked about all this. All of us being horror movie fans the jokes flowed way too easy and with the help of whiskey, they were all too funny. All too funny until the power went out.
We didn’t go into immediate freak out mode. Although if I were alone I would have hidden somewhere, or jumped in my car and drove to a hotel to wait out the night. But we were all together and rationalized the coincidence of it. But it was darker than Hell up there with nothing but the campfire. The wolves started howling and sounded more like a cartoon than real life. It was certainly scary, but when you are with all your friends it is somehow less scary. And the power did come back on around 10 pm or so. We texted the owner of the cabin. Seems that the whole side of the mountain had a brown out. Happens up there when it gets really windy, which it had earlier in the day. Those horror movies tend to really mess with your head. Good thing real life isn’t much like a horror film, or else I probably would have died up there that night.
But for all the jokes about the one guy who makes it out alive, the guy who dies the coolest, and the guy who dies first, I started thinking about the seriousness of it all. The guy who really did make it out alive was the Vietnam War Veteran. And his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t leave him as an ax wielding killer who ate the flesh and blood of people at his cabin. It manifested itself in a goofy overabundance of notes about the general dangers of everything. And he knows this about himself. That’s why he told us that he was a vet. That’s why he reminded us of his own struggle. It wasn’t a referendum on war, or America or the type of person he was. It was an apology, out front, with a cane, limping in your face. He is who he is and he actually had to rationalize that and come up with an apology. All we had to rationalize is how much steak we ate.
I guess that’s not something we really know about, we’re all too young to remember that war. And we didn’t get chased through the woods by an ax wielding madman. Not this time anyway. Then again, maybe we’re just the lucky ones, and he decided not to kill us. I guess we’ll never know. But, I know after that weekend I certainly feel lucky. I’ve got some good friends. Friends that I really consider family. I would hate to lose any of them. Especially if it were a gruesome story. Plus, there’s only four other guys that know why Randy White is so funny. And why you should snuff Andes Mints. And why it’s not weird to shout, “Oh, I love watering plants!”
Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.
He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband